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Gungahlin - 16 Years Old


Gungahlin - 16 Years old

It is always interesting to look back at the people you meet in professional life that have made a difference. At Gungahlin, there are many people who come to mind but at this time I want to talk about only three, who as a consequence of their roles in the formative years of the town carry much of the responsibility for the fact that we have a traditional town in Canberra (albeit with all its faults).
In the early 1990’s I was fortunate to be asked to help design the town and in 1996 I was asked to sit on the Gungahlin Development Authority (GDA) board. This Authority was tasked with delivering the new town and its residential community of around 80,000 people. 
The town was designed by a team led by Pamille Berg (of MGT Architects who had just finished the new Parliament House). Recognition of Pamille’s pivotal role in driving the design team toward a main street based town centre has unfortunately been lost over time. Australia had not developed a main street based town since World War 1 and so the knowledge base within the design team was limited.  She managed around 18 other consultants (all guys, she was the only female on the team) toward a definitive vision that she extracted from the small community that was living there at the time. This community did not want a mall, they wanted an urban town with streets and cafes, and Pam made sure the design team was faithful to the brief. Pamille and the early community deserve much of the credit for the fact that we have a town and not a mall at Gungahlin. 

Photo Author. Gozzard Street (a proposed lane) .

We designed every store and car park combination to establish a robust block structure that would cater to the onerous parking requirements of modern retail box stores and yet still deliver an urban and traditional town. The result was a series of facing 200 metre by 200 metre super-blocks, with lanes cutting each of the blocks at  around 140 metres running parallel to main street. 

Story we're following......

Density & Economies See Richard Florida's analysis of the relationship between economic productivity and population density. He has also found that happiness is higher in denser areas than less dense areas.
Click Here to read article

Next  Month's Article.....
The relationship between street-based retail, mall based retail and non retail employment.

Also Coming Soon.....
A correlation has emerged between shopping centre floorspace per capita and obesity.  Also of interest is recent research that shows the larger your local supermarket, the higher your BMI and waist circumference.
This block typology meant that we could accommodate all the parking for the retail and commercial likely on each block and allow the rear of the block to face the next street. These designs disappeared into the government planning agency and were released with some fairly major adjustments. The 9 metre lanes became streets of around 16 metres and the rear blocks were widened substantially. The result is the confusion between fronts and backs that you can see today.

After designing the town we wrote the planning code for the town centre and the drawings disappeared again but this time into the bottom drawer. We decided to test our new planning scheme against the previous town in Canberra, Tuggeranong, which we regarded as an outcome we didn’t want to see at Gungahlin. So we read the Tuggeranong Planning Scheme and compared it with ours. They were identical! 

After some debate, the team wrote a design code for the town centre that became the Variation to the Territory Plan. To my knowledge and chagrin this is the first and only design code adopted for a town in Australia. The important point here is that planning regulation will not deliver town - you need a design code. 

The Authority went to market for Expressions of Interest to develop the first stage of the town centre in 1996. At the time Canberra was at a low point as Mr Howard had recently been elected Prime Minister and had heavily trimmed the public service. We received a number of EOI responses including one from one of Australia’s largest developers who wanted first right of refusal over all subsequent blocks in the town centre. The first thing the Authority did was to decide that it was important to exercise control so that no developer could develop more than one block at a time nor have any right of refusal over any block not yet developed.

Woolworths through their development vehicle Fabcot won the rights to develop the first stage. This approval from the Authority brought the second valuable person in to town. David Maxwell at the time ran Fabcot for Woolworths. David negotiated through his board a main street based Woolworths Marketplace. Not only did Fabcot deliver a street based centre, but they also added an office component that sat above the retail. Interestingly, I have been unable to get Woolworths to do another one in Australia since (which simply indicates to  me the effectiveness of people like David Maxwell). 

Finally the third person who holds great credit for Gungahlin is Ian Wood-Bradley of ACT Planning who steadfastly maintained the integrity of the town centre throughout the town’s formative years in leveraging development applications to the required urban and built form. Ian is possibly responsible for taking David Maxwell to the extreme end of his comfort zone.

Lessons Learned

The Linear Park

The design created a legible and connected structure through which a notional main street could come alive. A part of the structure was the town square. Initially my co-designers wanted an iconic, but large rectangular square framed by civic buildings. If you look at the linear park today, just imagine the same size but consolidated to a square on the north side of Hibberson Street (the main street). I argued that the civic buildings of today are not strong or large enough to justify the size of the space and was worried that we would lose continuity between the east and west ends of the town. Eventually I won and the square was extruded to become a linear park the length of the two opposing super blocks. The model I used to convince my co-designers was Mizner Park in Boca Raton, Florida and the park was modelled on that great space. The linear park as developed by the Land Development Agency (the GDA was disbanded and the LDA took its place) is not what was intended by the design team or the GDA. The current space is hard landscaped albeit with a small, green covered playground at the south end. The space was intended as an oasis, a soft, green lung and series of sheltered spaces to offset the Canberra heat in summer and sunny spaces in the winter. The ability to provide a startling contrast between the grassland landscape, the hard paved town centre through highly contrived green space was supposed to be a part of the “wow” factor of the town centre. The square was also intended as a major amenity feature to assist us to sell apartments that were to face down on it.

There was some concern amongst the locals that the proposed design was not truly representative of the local vegetation and would require excessive amounts of water. Water would have been easy to harvest from the roofs of surrounding buildings (the land owners were levied to contribute to the linear park anyway and getting rainwater tanks would have been easy). We did not want the landscape to be the same as the surrounding vegetation as it would not have been urban (unfortunately Australian natives are poorly suited to the urban environment), and would not have been special. Where’s the “wow” in uniformity?

The following images show how different the outcomes are between Gungahlin and Mizner Park. I am not suggesting that palms of Florida would be appropriate, but that our own version of an oasis of beauty and landscape was the intended consequence of the design of the linear park.

Google Earth showing the linear park at Gungahlin

Google Earth showing the linear park at Boca Raton

Photos Author: Gungahlin linear park images

Photos Author: Mizner Park linear park images

Density Housing & Market Research

The development of high density housing around town centres is usually a fundamental element in all centre planning. When the GDA wanted to develop such housing we commissioned 3 market research firms to advise us on the depth of the market. We were told there was no market for high density housing in Canberra and that high density development generated a lower per square metre land value than single family housing (high density in Canberra at the time was generally subsidised housing or student housing). Also we were informed that were likely to be selling terraces and apartments only slightly cheaper than what you would pay for a 3-4 bedroom cottage on a small detached lot. At the time we had developed the first stage of the town centre and a few ancillary buildings but most of the land around the town was undeveloped. We had little critical mass that might drive this increased density. We designed housing that included terraces (attached), small cottage homes (detached) and apartments (9 only). We pretty much gave the site away to the developer to subsidise the market risk. The apartments sold off plan in the first weekend on market.

Today there are over a hundred apartments in Gungahlin. The lesson learned is that whilst price is an issue for purchasers of high density housing, the primary issue is not price but lifestyle. Purchasers of apartments and terraces included active retirees and high income singles (at the time, mainly single women). These buyers were not interested in the yard, they wanted the lifestyle benefits of being close to an emerging town centre.

A further lesson learned is that most market research for housing is backward looking. Market research should include a more detailed evaluation of lifestyle preferences by market segment, and product images and plans are an important tool for researchers.

Retail Design & Building Design

There is a big difference between shop design in a mall and shop design in a street. In a mall the building is irrelevant to the shop. In a street the shop is subservient to the building and the building is subservient to the composed street (streetscape). In a mall you can control the ambient light to the point where the shop window is the stand out feature of the visual environment. In a street you have no ability to control light and the light changes constantly.

Photos Author: Gungahlin - solid to void problems, weak vertical proportions

Photos Author: Charleston - good solid to void ratio, strong vertical proportions

In a street you need visual complexity (Rapoport’s “number of noticeable differences”) in order to value the perspective of the pedestrian. This is different to the modernist notion of the “honesty” of the building - the over-used “form follows function” principle. In town the primary reference point for building design should be the pedestrian, not the activity. Activities come and go, the building is or should be forever.

We made a mistake in not requiring buildings in Gungahlin to have dominant vertical proportions - bringing buildings to the ground through the vertical elements. We allowed buildings to “float on glass” and did not monitor the solid void ratios that together with these proportions (which is another way of saying “fine grain”) creates a pedestrian scale street.

Fast Food Operators & Building Design

Dealing with chain stores In the development of any town or retail environment will bring institutional challenges to objective based planning and urban design principles. We ran across one such challenge very early in the release program for the town centre. We sold a number of sites on the edges of the core town centre as “fast food” sites. There was some debate about whether we should have such activities in the first place, but eventually we decided we had no mandate to exclude them, so we provided for them in a defined precinct. One of the requirements we placed on development across the town centre was that all buildings were required to address streets and reinforce corners in particular. One of the tenants for these sites was KFC. We were informed that our requirement to require KFC to develop a building on the corner site was not in line with the international development principles of KFC. In essence the drive-through of the facility was to be built to follow the angle of the corner AT the corner. We required the building to address the corner and NOT the drive through.

KFC we were informed wanted the following as per Diagram 1. We wanted as per Diagram 2.

Diagram 1

Diagram 2

We were informed that KFC had “never” developed a store such as we required. The two parties (GDA and developer) sat across the table without any movement to develop the site for 2 years! The site is today developed as per Diagram 2 as shown below. The lesson learned here was that town is more important than any industry-based development model that seeks to challenge the quality of the public realm and in particular the desire for people to walk to and around the town. A priority for cars requires a different approach to siting of buildings, access and car parking than a priority for pedestrians. For me a key fundamental of the ability to call a place a town is the need AND desire to walk primarily within the public realm between a range of retail and other businesses and activities. If this desire is weak or compromised then the town will likely fail in in its role as a social and economic hub, and will be unloved. The quality of the pedestrian experience in streets is the measure by which towns succeed or fail.

Photo: Author. Gungahlin - KFC building today

The Role of the Artist

We undertook to get a range of artistic output in the detail of the fabric of the town centre and Fabcot (Woolworths) also faithfully engaged in this process. There are a number of artistic elements that can be found around the centre. The grassland motif is a feature of the first stage of development by Fabcot. Amongst other things the GDA commissioned an artist to design and make the town’s manhole covers.

Gungahlin - motifs on the buildings & manhole cover

The artist designed, hand made manhole covers were $32 cheaper than the standard Canberra manhole cover! Well that was until the artist found out.  Art is an important place-relevant aspect of creating place and as you can see it does not necessarily cost any more - not that cost is or should be the driving issue. Artists are under-used. I feel we under-used them in Gungahlin. It was something that Pamille Berg was strong on but unfortunately she too was lost to the process.

Mall v Main Street and Retail Rents

Probably the most vexatious issue in the debate between developers and planners is the issue of relative retail performance in malls and main streets and rents. There is no doubt that the most efficient way to deliver retail is via a controlled, pedestrian-only environment - a mall. However the development of town is not about the retail. Retail is a low value economic use as it merely caters to local spending and doesn’t bring in wealth from other places. It sits at the bottom of the economic wealth pyramid. It is however an amazing catalyst to high income jobs creation if it is delivered in a manner that creates a visually rich, urban environment. Research undertaken by Urbacity shows that when shops address streets you get 5 times the amount of non retail employment than when shops are in a mall (this is the subject of next month's article). It is important then that the economic, social, environmental and cultural elements of a place are the collective targets for centre planning - not mere retail performance.

Gungahlin - malls

Gungahlin - main street

We have both mall and main street elements in Gungahlin.

In Gungahlin the internal mall elements are relatively short and do not directly connect to each other. Some premises are double loaded in that they face in to the mall and out to the street. Most of these are food service operators, mainly cafes.

Overall the street and the mall are balanced in terms of number of shops. The major anchor tenants are of course within the malls.

The street tenants pay higher average rent than the mall tenants.

The important lesson here is that if given an equal chance to work and even with average architecture as we have at Gungahlin, there is every chance that the street will beat the mall. Unfortunately most mall/street hybrids in Australia are designed so that the footfall preference is in the malls and not in the streets (see Point Cook for instance). As a consequence the streets perform poorly and these projects are then used by developers to say that main streets don’t work. The basis of retail rent is footfall. Where the footfall is greatest is where the rent is highest. Design the pedestrian environment in the streets to deliver as high footfall as the mall and you will have comparative rents (I am resisting the urge to say "duh!").

There is no basis for saying that streets deliver lower rents than malls. In any event creating towns and villages is about so much more than the retail.

To demonstrate the difference in what should be our focus, compare the following statements: “I am going to shop in a mall” and “I am going to shop in Venice.” Both are statements indicating intent and from a land use planner’s point of view deliver exactly the same outcome. However one evokes character, heritage and culture and the other has no such value system. Whilst heritage is something that comes with time, there is no reason why planning should not require a cultural connection to place and carry an obligation that promotes any number of experiential or emotional outcomes, such as a visually-rich, quality pedestrian experience (most important), or local identity through the use of materials and other local design identifiers. If the regulatory reference point is primarily to get a quality town (the “Venice”), the retailers will fall over themselves to be there, and experience shows that even get the box stores will behave. The development and retail industry tends to speak of "ease" - usually meaning ease of access, which converts to a car based development outcome measured in distance to the shops from the car. If the focus in design and planning is the "joy" of being in a place, which is simply a function of the pedestrian experience, then "ease" and proximate car parking becomes less important. The issue at the moment across New Zealand and Australia is that we are regulating primarily to get shops, attaching retail industry based parking codes, hoping to get mixed use (and failing), and we are still not getting town. If the lessons are to be learned from Gungahlin - care little about point-in-time, industry-standard models, the entire focus must be to get town. 

For all its faults (and it's not yet finished) I do think Gungahlin is a town.


Categories: GUNGAHLIN

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